People are finally coming around to the idea that fat is a necessary and healthful part of the diet, and it is high time. These “healthy fats” are not just the plant-based oils so often touted, such as olive oil — traditional animal fats are also healthy fats.
Benefits of Animal Fats in the Human Diet
Before food became industrialized and processed, cultures all over the world used rendered animal fats in much of their cooking. Fat is essential for many processes in the body, including digestion, hormone balance, satiety, blood sugar regulation, and nutrient absorption. Animal fats are superior to many plant oils, because of their specific fatty acid profiles and the minimal processing required to make them.
These benefits can be obtained by eating meat with fat still attached, or when the fat is rendered into a solid, pure fat for cooking. Either source provides a variety of fatty acids needed by the body, including saturated, monounsaturated, and well as polyunsaturated fatty acids, in the form of omega-3 fats, conjugated linoleic acid and arachidonic acid. Animal foods, especially the fat, also offer cholesterol, which is the backbone of the reproductive hormones and, along with saturated fats, also support brain health and fertility.
Saturated fat and cholesterol, vilified for the past several decades, are once again part of the healthy fat conversation as the science has caught up with what traditional people always knew: Animal fats are a prized food. To get the most nutrient-dense and ethical sources of your fat, and all animal foods, choose those soured from animals raised outside and fed a natural diet. Exclusively grain-fed animals do not offer the same nutrient density or ratio of healthy fats as those raised in a natural, rather than industrial, way.
Home Rendering Support Local Economies
Besides its healthfulness, animal fat is so important, because it can be obtained and made locally, rather than relying on transportation from far away. Other healthy fats, such as coconut oil, require many more food miles to reach your kitchen than tallow made at home from cows raised on a local farm.
I say we start to treat our fats and oils like our meat and produce, giving them the locavore treatment that they deserve. Finding local, pastured beef or pork fat may take some searching, but is very possible. Start by asking meat producers at the farmer’s market or search online for local farms that do direct sales, and you will likely find either lard or tallow that has already been rendered, or trimmed fat you can render at home yourself.
Storing. Once you follow the recipe below, you have created a very stable fat for storage, that is quite resistant to spoilage or rancidity. This is due to its fatty acid profile, allowing it to be kept at room temperature for months; you can also keep it in the fridge or freezer for even longer-term storage.
Cooking. The high ratio of saturated fat in lard and tallow also make them great for higher-heat cooking, as they are less prone to oxidation during cooking and have a higher smoke point than many other oils. You can use rendered fat anywhere you would use other oils or fats, such as butter, in your cooking.
Tallow vs. lard. Tallow does have a stronger, more savory flavor than lard, making it better suited to cooking potatoes, vegetables, eggs, or meat with it. Lard, having a milder, more neutral flavor, works great in pie crusts and desserts, homemade tortillas and even popcorn. Both are great for deep-frying, when you want to make the occasional homemade, healthier versions of favorites like fries or fried chicken.
Outside of the kitchen, tallow is wonderful when used topically, and is known for its healing properties for the skin. Any way you use them, these traditional animal fats are ideal for their low food miles and are wonderful for both the inside and outside of our bodies — what’s not to love?
Recipe for Homemade Rendered Animal Fat
For making lard or tallow. Yields 1 ½ to 2 ½ quarts
• 3 to 6 pounds beef or pork fat, trimmed of skin, either cubed or ground
• ½ cup-1 cup purified water
1. Place the prepared fat and water in a large stock pot. Turn heat to low and stir frequently to prevent sticking or burning, especially at the start of cooking.
2. After about half an hour, the fat will have softened and begin to melt. It should then start to simmer. Keep stirring regularly throughout the process. Some bits of “crackling,” or pieces of meat and skin left on the fat, will begin to emerge as well. Continue to cook it down for another half an hour or so until the cloudiness of the fat is gone, and it has cooked down significantly. You will know it is rendered and ready to strain when it appears clarified. Another sign will be when the simmer slows down, as the water will be completely cooked out. Most of the crackling will have sunk to the bottom as well; some larger pieces of skin may still float on the surface, but the brown, crispy bits will sink.
3. After the fat is done rendering, remove the pot from the heat and let it cool slightly. Very carefully, pour the liquid lard or tallow through a fine mesh strainer into glass jars or heat-safe storage containers. I highly encourage you to save the strained crackling bits, as they are delicious when crisped either on the stovetop or in the oven, and are little flavor nuggets not to be wasted.
4. Cover the jars and let the tallow or lard come to room temperature. Once cooled, it will turn solid and opaque. Lard should turn white once solidified, while tallow will be more cream-colored. If the cooled fat doesn’t become solid in both texture and color, it may need to be rendered further. You can then return it to the stockpot and cook it for another 15 to 30 minutes, then strain and cool again.
5. Once cooled completely and firm, you can transfer the tallow or lard to the fridge or freezer for long-term storage if desired.
1. Price, Weston A. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Price-Pottenger Foundation, 1939 (2008 edition).
3. Biochemistry, 5th ed. Section 26.4. Important Derivatives of Cholesterol Include Bile Salts and Steroid Hormones
Photo by Laura Poe
Laura Poe is a Registered Dietitian and traditional foods instructor. She homesteads in Wisconsin where she regular contributes to Edible Madison. Connect with Laura at Laura Poe, RD, for private practice appointments (distance consults available), upcoming classes, newsletter subscriptions, and more. Her nutrient-dense recipes can be found on Laura’s blog, Brine & Broth, and you can see what she has been cooking and creating on her Instagram @brineandbroth. Read all of Laura’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.